Can older adults use meditation to help slow, or even reverse, cognitive decline?
It has to work. It just seems obvious. Practicing the ability to focus attention, the task behind most meditation methods, must definitely help one improve their focus and attention.
But in study after study, causal inference has been difficult to establish.
Causal inference is the tested and significant result that one thing causes something else. Many studies have set out to show that, in the elderly, meditation leads to improvements in cognitive functioning. Some researchers even imply meditation can slow cognitive deterioration.
The overwhelming conclusion seems to be that meditation sure can’t hurt, and the older test subjects, for the most part, seem to enjoy it and stick with it (This is not the case with studies of younger meditators, who drop out of studies in large numbers and have low compliance rates when they remain in the study). So there is definitely a benefit.
We’re just not quite sure what it is.
A review paper found here looked at a dozen studies on meditation and cognition in older test subjects. They all infer cognitive benefits for meditation.
But causal inference, especially regarding the mind and behavior, is extremely difficult to establish.
The first problem revealed in the paper is that there are so many different types of meditation and each study only investigated one of them.
While almost all meditation methods use focused attention on some object as the practice, they often go about this in very different ways. TM uses a mantra, Zen and Vipassana focus on the breath, and Mindfulness-Based Therapies use a variety of focus points and often rely on guided meditation, at least for beginners.
The methods are different and may lead to different results. They’re just rarely pitted against one another in studies.
Bias poses a special problem in these studies. Meditation seems to work well for people who think it’s going to work well. People who think otherwise either don’t join studies in the first place or practice inconsistently during the study or even drop out. The bias of the researchers, and their funding sources, also influences results.
In the papers cited the reviewers found only one that did not suffer from significant bias.
Measuring cognition is difficult, too. In an older population whose cognition is declining it’s difficult to establish criteria to measure improvement in mental functioning, especially across a diverse population.
Paradoxically, it takes healthy cognitive ability to even practice meditation in the first place. One must be able to moderately focus their attention, to have some control over their attention, to be able to complete the tasks being studied. Control over attention is pretty advanced high order stuff.
Every one of the studies concludes that meditation improves cognitive functioning capabilities, especially attention. I have no doubt that this is true. It seems common sense that if you practice something you get better at it.
But further studies are warranted before science definitively reveals the benefits of meditation in geriatrics.
I practice meditation every day, and I’m sure I’m better off in many ways because of it. That science can’t just yet prove this doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Still, we meditation proponents must be cautious with our claims and our insistence that meditation will be good for everyone. It will be good for many people, that is, most of the people who believe it will help and stick with it.
Other practices like aerobic exercise produce the same, even more strictly tested positive impact on cognition. Productive work or hobbies, even studying new skills, are impactful as well. That’s the best news. A lot of things work.
In helping the elderly maintain cognitive functioning and mental health there are several good options. Meditation is surely one of them. Even if we can’t yet prove it.
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